Golden Oak: Why Disney's Latest Real Estate Gamble Isn't Such a Goofy Move

On Wednesday, the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) unveiled its latest real estate venture: the Golden Oak Residential Resort Community. Located between Disney World and Epcot, in the heart of the Disney vacation complex, the 980-acre premium development will feature a golf course, a clubhouse, a private lake, and numerous other amenities. Of course, these premium attractions come with a premium price: homes in Golden Oak will cost between $1.5 and $8 million.

In its first phase of construction, Golden Oak will only have 30 houses, but Disney ultimately plans to build 450 homes and a 445-room Four Seasons hotel. Homeowners will have full access to the Disney theme parks, as well as resident-only facilities, including private VIP tours of the parks, holiday home decorating, grocery delivery, an on-call concierge service, a yoga studio, a fitness facility, and a full-service spa.

Catering to the Super-Rich

For all of its extensive amenities, Golden Oak is still a housing development, and Disney's approach is very much in keeping with the planned community model of suburban building. While residents are allowed to hire their own architects, they have to choose from a Disney-vetted list of builders and their exterior materials have to match the approved neighborhood styles. They also have to choose from among a limited selection of house styles, including "Village Courtyard," "Dutch Colonial," "Venetian," "Tuscan Village," "Spanish Revival," "Island Colonial," and "Italianate."

Homeowners hoping for a sprawling estate also need not apply: Golden Oak lots range in size between one quarter and three quarters of an acre. Initially, the development will be broken up into four distinct areas, each of which is targeted at a different income level and personality type. "Kimball Trace," for example, is a "charming Tuscan-inspired village with courtyard homes," while "Silverbrook" offers "a life of quiet repose alongside conservation areas or water features." For the truly well-heeled, there is "Carolwood," which is surrounded by "a natural preserve," while the most exclusive enclave in Golden Oak, "Carolwood Reserve" is a "limited offering of eight premium sites, all generously sized at approximately three quarters acre."

This is not Disney's first foray into residential real estate. In 1996, the company unveiled Celebration, a 4,900-acre planned community located a short drive from Walt Disney World. Broken into separate "villages," the $2.5 billion development was designed to evoke a small town feeling, with small parks, a school, and a cozy commercial area, complete with shops, restaurants, and a movie theater. When Celebration opened, housing options ranged from $600-per-month rental units to $4 million single-family homes.

The Wall Street Journalnoted that the shift from Celebration to Golden Oak suggests a starkly changing view of the good life. While Celebration reflects an "idealistic notion that small towns were the best model, and could not have gated communities and economic segregation," Golden Oak reflects the gated, economically-segregated enclave for the exceedingly wealthy.,feedConfig,localizationConfig,entry&id=902093&pid=902092&uts=1277400340

Disney's Daring Foray Into Luxury Real Estate

Browse through the gallery for a look inside Disney's Golden Oak Residential Resort Community, where the company is selling high-end homes that are conveniently located near its Orlando parks.


Karim Sahib, AFP - Getty Images

A Bright Spot in a Battered Real Estate Market

Having designed a preserve for creme de la creme, Disney's next question is whether or not the depressed Florida real estate market can support a super-premium housing development like Golden Oak. As critics -- including Daily Finance's Doug McIntyre -- have noted, the Florida real estate market was devastated by the recent economic downturn. Orlando property values have been cut in half, and the average price of a home in the area is now hovering in the mid-$200,000 range.

Then again, this isn't Florida; it's Disney World, and when it comes to vacationers, it's hard to overestimate the power of the Mouse. This, after all, is the company that charges $10,450 for membership to Club 33, a private restaurant in Disney Land. For that steep price -- and a further $3,275 in yearly dues -- members can eat a mediocre buffet lunch in an opulent dining room. If any other company went with this business model, the restaurant would go bust, but Club 33 has been in business for 40 years and has a three-year waiting list for new members.

And, while Orlando housing prices have plummeted, the town still has cachet among the independently wealthy. Tiger Woods lives in Windermere, an exclusive enclave in the city, and Versailles, a partially completed mansion in Orlando, recently went on sale for $75 million. By comparison, Golden Oaks's $1.5 million price tag is a steal, and -- given a choice between crashed SUVs and Disney magic -- it's not hard to see which one families with children will choose.